Comedy is subjective and both sides of the pacific, very different styles of humour exist. All you have to do is look at the different tones in The Office UK and US (for context, I much prefer the UK version!) to see how fiercely divided this genre actually is.
When Catherine Tate caught her big break on The Catherine Tate Show, it resonated with the British public, featuring catchy, memorable characters and some pretty good impressions to boot. Showing her diversity with accents and characters, Catherine Tate played an assortment of different stereotypical characters herself.
It’s hard to explain just how much of a cultural impact “Am I bovvered tho?” or “What a f*cking liberty” had during the time.
An international streaming platform like Netflix then, poses as somewhat of a conundrum for comedy writers. Not only do you need to stay true to your style (in Tate’s case, playing numerous characters at once ala. Little Britain & Come Fly With Me), but one also needs to appeal much more broadly to a wider audience.
Despite some good gags, a few laugh out loud segments and a decidedly British style of humour, Hard Cell feels like a hard sell for the masses, with many likely to see this as a vanity project rather than a true reflection of Tate’s comedic style.
This isn’t helped with the fact the story here is pretty barebones and revolves around a female prison called Woldsley.
The inmates are buzzing over news that they’re going to be starring in a brand new musical, with Laura Willis (Catherine Tate), the governor, overseeing proceedings. Most of her storyline involves tackling various different problems inside the prison while also continuing to march forward in the hopes of getting her musical out within the month.
Fleshing out this world are a number of different characters. There’s new inmate Angela Brooks (Catherine Tate), who finds a target painted on her back given she’s the newbie.
There’s also male prison officer Marco (Catherine Tate) alongside Gary (Peter Singh) who are by far the better characters, while Ros (Catherine Tate) is an Irish inmate who has a thing for tattoos.
There are a number of other stereotypical players too, but with the exception of Ros, Laura and Angela, the rest of the ensemble don’t have much of an arc.
Big Viv in particular doesn’t have a whole lot to work with, while a recurring gag involving “Heather from Eastenders” (Cheryl Fergison) is so niche, it’s likely to go over a lot of people’s heads outside of the UK.
For context to those international readers, Eastenders is your typical soap opera and incredibly popular across England. Outside of the UK, not so much.
The plot involving the musical doesn’t really get going until late on in the game either, and to be honest this plays second fiddle to the main drama involving the different inmates.
Even then though, there’s not a whole lot to sink your teeth into. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, given The Catherine Tate show relied on little segments involving Old Nan or Lauren Cooper, but those characters had far more nuance and depth than what’s here.
If you make it until the end, a last gasp twist does change the game somewhat and opens the door for a second season. However, the tone of the piece does feel a little at odds to the mostly light-hearted feel those early episodes entertained.
Hard Cell isn’t a bad show. In fact, its actually rather funny. There are some definite similarities to 2010’s Come Fly With Me, but Hard Cell swings closer to the crude humour of Little Britain instead. For some, that’ll be just what the doctor ordered but for others, if you’re not sold by the end of episode 1, this one probably won’t be for you.
Verdict - 6/10